What Is Happening in Brazil?

Making sense of a tumultuous year in the country’s politics.

Dilma Rousseff speaks to supporters at the Planalto presidential palace after the Senate voted to accept impeachment charges against her on May 12 in Brasilia, Brazil.

Igo Estrela/Getty Images

Last week, Brazil’s Congress suspended the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, for budgetary improprieties, throwing Brazil into further chaos after an already tumultuous year of political scandals. Rousseff, who now faces an impeachment trial, has been accused of budgetary maneuvers that her defenders say are within the norms of Brazilian politics; they have also referred to the congressional moves against her as a coup. (Rousseff, who is from the center-left, was tortured by the right-wing military dictatorship in the 1970s; the new president, Michel Temer—himself recently found guilty of campaign finance violations—is a right-winger.) What no one disputes is that large numbers of both Rousseff’s supporters and her opponents in Congress are facing mountains of corruption charges.

To discuss the state of affairs in the country, I spoke by phone with Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at FGV university in Brazil and an expert on U.S.-Brazilian relations. We talked about the center’s strength in Brazilian politics, the real reason Rousseff was suspended, and fading American influence in the region. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: You have written about the resilience of Democratic institutions, but a lot of people have called what just occurred in Brazil a coup. Do you disagree?

Matias Spektor: This was not a coup; this was a process that was approved by an elected parliament, it was sanctioned by the Supreme Court. The Rousseff administration had plenty of time and opportunity to makes its case, and what was found was that several crimes were committed. It was a messy process and it looks very ugly because the people now in power are accused of corruption as much as the people who have been booted out. But this is in no way a coup.

I think part of the argument that this was a coup is that in a country where corruption is prevalent—whether it’s Brazil or Russia or Pakistan—when specific people are targeted more than others, there is something undemocratic about that.

Right, yes, fair enough. But that is not a coup. You are correct in suggesting that the reason why the Rousseff administration collapsed was not so much because of corruption accusation themselves. The corruption accusations were a tool to get her out of power. Corruption is endemic in Brazil. The reason she fell was political. She lost political support. She presided over the largest recession in the last 80 years. She was also unlucky to be in power when the largest corruption scandal ever in the country broke, implicating many people in her administration. And she was very poor at building up a coalition. Brazilian presidents are minority presidents. They need to be adept at building coalitions, and she wasn’t. She lost support in parliament, and parliament used the excuse of corruption to boot her out.

You wrote a book about Kissinger and Brazil. To what degree do you see what is happening in Brazil today as a replay of what went on in the Cold War era?

I think there is very little connection actually. American power in South America has been declining now for almost 20 years. The United States is far less influential today. The countries in the region have become far stronger and have become democracies with working institutions. Of course there are exceptions. Venezuela, for instance, has gone backwards in terms of the strength of its institutions. But all the other countries in the region are stronger in terms of institutions. There is very little U.S. influence.

My book explains why Henry Kissinger, starting in 1969, tried to turn Brazil into an ally in South America. He expected Brazil to be a major American power, and as he did with the shah of Iran, he turned to the Brazilian military to help the United States fight the Cold War. He failed in his attempts, but in the process he supported a brutal military dictatorship, and he also supported Brazilian nuclear ambitions. At the time, Brazil had a secret nuclear program, which he supported.

Another shining Kissinger moment.


Anyway, I wasn’t just talking about U.S. influence but also the left-right divide.

Brazil is actually an example where the divide between left and right today doesn’t take you very far because we had a government of the center-left for the past 13 years that didn’t really take the country to the left the way we saw in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. This was a very mild movement to the left, and what we are now seeing is an attempt to move Brazil to the right, but very slowly, on the margins. The left-right divide is not enormous in Brazil. The state has a big chunk of the economy still. There is a very strong center in Brazil. You don’t see a lot of support for left-wing or right-wing politics.

When you read about congressmen praising torturers, it’s hard not to feel that the country’s Cold War divide is reappearing in this current crisis.

There are several things to say. Temer did appoint a male-only cabinet, and not only male but white only as well. Temer is a 75-year-old representative of old Brazil. He doesn’t understand how Brazilian society has changed. If he went out on the streets, most people would not give him the vote. So he wouldn’t be able to get to the presidency without being vice president, which he was. That is why so many people likened him to Frank Underwood in House of Cards.

The second thing is that there has been a patronizing attitude by people who look at the Brazilian Congress and its colorful characters, and say, “My goodness, isn’t this country backwards.” Yes, there was an appalling, atrocious man standing up to defend torturers, but my goodness, have you ever paid attention to the U.S. House of Representatives?

I try not to, but I see your point.

Brazil is a massive country. It is 200 million people. Going from one side to the other takes longer than going from Lisbon to Moscow. In the political market there is a space for everyone. What we saw was the diversity of a very messy, very vibrant democracy.

Finally, we had President Lula of the Workers’ Party running Brazil for eight years and then making his successor president. In that period they governed with the Brazilian right, they were allies with the Brazilian right, they did not pass any major new legislation on human rights, they did not pass major legislation on LGBT rights. They were fundamentally conservative. Yes, they are better than what we are now seeing with Temer. But my point is that the change is on the margins.

What do you make of the WikiLeaks reports that Temer was a U.S. intelligence asset of some sort?

That allegation is nonsense. [Laughs.] He was a politician, who like many other politicians had meetings with the American Embassy. And the American Embassy would report those conversations back to Washington, D.C. We saw that with people to the left and to the right. There is nothing in the documents that suggests he was an informant.

Do you think Temer will try to move the country sharply to the right?

We are not going to see a culture war in Brazil more than we have seen it already. We have lived with a very conservative, backward political class for the past 20 years while the left was in power.

What about the financial support program for poor Brazilians, Bolsa Família, that former President Lula enacted? Was that not a major achievement?

That is a major achievement that transformed social policy in Brazil. But it comes from the blueprint of the World Bank. The World Bank had argued for something like that for Brazil for 10 years before it was implemented. It didn’t come from the left; it came from the Washington Consensus. We are not going to see a rollback of that with Temer because any politician who tries to roll it back would be unseated the following day.

So where do you see the country heading under Temer?

The Temer administration will try to move Brazil to the right, but my point is that it won’t be as dramatic as it might be, such as it will now be in Argentina. Brazil is a far more complex system, checks and balances do operate, and it is an enormous ship to turn around.

And what about the larger problem of corruption?

This is going to go on. I am very skeptical about the current investigations changing the Brazilian political system. Although we have seen progress—there is a prosecutor’s office that is independent, it has become more difficult for politicians to engage in corruption and not pay a price—are we going to see dramatic change? Clearly not.